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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006

Windham County clean energy project heats up

With new warming systems, participants aim to save money, cut emissions

BRATTLEBORO—More than two years after its inception, a wood heat program fueled by a $1.6 million allocation from Vermont Yankee appears to be kicking into high gear.

Windham Wood Heat Initiative, which promotes high-efficiency wood boiler installation, has funded three completed projects with five more in progress. Five of those new heating systems are in school buildings.

The program also has a newly extended deadline, and officials have begun allowing nonprofit organizations to participate. Previously, the program had been limited to publicly owned structures.

“I’m excited about it — it offers a lot more opportunity,” said Marion Major, an energy planner at Windham Regional Commission.

Windham Wood Heat sprang from a financial settlement between state officials and Entergy, which stopped power production at the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant in Vernon at the end of 2014.

Entergy had made payments totaling $5.2 million to the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund. The state’s Vermont Yankee shutdown settlement agreement says half of that money must be used “for clean energy development activities in or for the benefit of Windham County.”

In spring 2015, the state allocated $1.6 million from that pot to create Windham Wood Heat. Then-Gov. Peter Shumlin said state officials were “advancing the effort to move to clean, local, and affordable energy in Vermont by investing in renewable biomass heating for Windham County schools and public buildings.”

That money went to Brattleboro-based Sustainable Energy Outreach Network, with other partners including Windham Regional Commission, Northern Forest Center, and Building Green.

Now, Windham Regional officials have taken over, and the program is accelerating.

A great fit

Andrew Perchlik, director of the state’s Clean Energy Development Fund, said the regional commission is a “great fit” to run the wood heat program because it has more staff and more experience with grants than the Sustainable Energy Outreach Network does.

State documents say most of Windham Wood Heat’s initial funding remains unspent. But officials expect that more than $1 million will be awarded through the program in fiscal year 2018.

The program doesn’t pay in full for new wood-fired boilers. Instead, Windham Wood Heat will fund 75 percent of the cost of an initial audit and up to 35 percent of installation costs.

The program also offers “one-on-one coaching” through wood heat projects.

The idea is to transition school, municipal, and nonprofit buildings from fossil-fuel systems to modern wood heat systems like pellet boilers. The goal is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and save money.

“These systems are technologically advanced,” Major said. “They’re not your old wood stove.”

The program has supported finished wood heat projects at three Brattleboro properties — Academy School; the New England Center for Circus Arts’ new headquarters; and the Esteyville School Building, which doesn’t function as a school but is owned by Windham Southeast Supervisory Union.

Five more projects are in various stages of development.

That includes four more schools — Green Street in Brattleboro; Guilford Central; Marlboro; and Flood Brook in Londonderry — as well as Windham & Windsor Housing Trust’s Putney Landing apartment project.

A 1920s-era oil burner has been replaced at Green Street School, Windham Southeast Superintendent Lyle Holiday said. Crews also are installing window quilts and better-insulated skylights.

Efficiency boost

In Guilford, Principal John Gagnon expects the school’s new wood-heat system to be finished by the end of September. Windham Wood Heat, Gagnon said, made it feasible for the district to convert from an oil-based system after years of discussion.

“The board and the community is looking at it as, over time, improving efficiency,” Gagnon said. “And it really fits into the ethos of the school — being a good citizen, and building a sustainable and healthy environment for our children.”

Windham Wood Heat Initiative had been scheduled to wrap up this fall, but that’s been pushed to December 2018 to accommodate additional projects. Major said she’s heard from a few interested entities, and she’s looking for more.

“We wanted to extend it through another building season,” she said.

More information is available at www.windhamregional.org/energy/wwh.

While the wood heat project got the majority of Windham County’s clean energy money from the Vermont Yankee settlement, there are other allocations:

• The state sent $400,000 to Windham Regional Commission to create a renewable energy grant program. The first round of those grants was awarded earlier this year.

Perchlik said state officials have decided to allocate an additional $300,000 to the grant program. That $300,000 initially had been earmarked for anaerobic digester projects in Windham County, but officials said they received no interest in such projects.

• About $270,000 will be allocated for a new residential wood heat program targeted for low-income households. Details haven’t yet been finalized, but Perchlik said it “could be a stove change-out program or something else.”

• Remaining funding will be used for a third-party evaluation of the Windham County clean energy programs, Perchlik said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #423 (Wednesday, August 30, 2017).

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